Bob Benge: Chickamauga WarriorEric Orr
Dragging Canoe, founder of the Chickamauga Band of the Cherokee.
In 1775 the Cherokee Indians had been making treaties with the United States for 55 years. They had already signed away a significant portion of their land when a white man by the name of Richard Henderson convinced Cherokee leaders to sell 20 million acres spanning part of North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky. It turned out to be the largest private real estate deal in the history of the United States. The selling price was 2000 pounds of sterling and 6 wagonloads of trade goods, about a quarter cent per acre. Among the negotiators was Attakullakulla, a prominent Cherokee chief. A young chief named Dragging Canoe vehemently protested the transaction. Bitter that his people had given up almost everything they owned, he feared this would bring about the extinction of the Cherokee. The land that sold was Cherokee hunting grounds, lands that they depended on for survival. Dragging Canoe warned that he would fight and he told the white men they were buying “dark and bloody ground.” He deemed the deal illegal as Cherokee law dictated that land cession must meet with unanimous approval among the tribe. Shortly thereafter Dragging Canoe moved his people to Chickamauga Creek, near present day Chattanooga, and formed the Chickamauga band of the Cherokee.
The American Revolution erupted just a month after the Henderson land deal. Most of the Cherokee tried to remain neutral, but Dragging Canoe took the opportunity to strike out at the encroaching white settlements. His forces were small at first but he continued to gain followers over the next 20 years as he and the Chickamaugas fought to preserve their heritage.
Among his cohorts was a young half blood named Bob Benge. Benge is believed to have been born sometime around 1760 in the Cherokee village of Toque. His mother was Cherokee and his father was a white trader of Scottish descent who had lived with Indians for most of his adult life. The older Benge was known to stand by his word. He was so highly respected among the Cherokee that Dragging Canoe once sent his own son to defend Benge in battle. Bob Benge was raised as an Indian along with his brother and sister. He was also related to Sequoyah, who later invented the Cherokee alphabet, and some sources say they were half brothers.
Around 1777, Benge’s family moved south to live among the Chickamaugas in a town called Running Water. Here Benge met and befriended a small band of Shawnee that had come to contribute to Dragging Canoe’s cause. Several Cherokee, including Benge, joined the Shawnee in raiding white settlements. Benge quickly rose to leadership as he established a reputation of being a courageous and swift warrior.
In 1785 Bob Benge led a war party northeast to the Holston River area of Tennessee and Virginia. The Indians came upon a cabin owned by Archibald and Fannie Dickson Scott. When night fell they broke down the door and rushed in shooting and killing Archibald. The four children living in the cabin were killed with tomahawks and scalped. After looting the house, they set it ablaze and rode away with Mrs. Scott to present day Kentucky, where the loot was divided equally among the warriors. The chief then divided the group sending nine warriors to steal horses from nearby Clinch River settlements and four men went to hunt with Mrs. Scott in tow. She was left alone with the oldest of the group and escaped to a white settlement. Benge’s presence on this raid is only assumed by Scott’s testimony of hearing Benge’s name spoken several times.
Shortly after the raid a notorious militia leader by the name of John Sevier used the dark of night to surprise the Cherokee settlement Ustalli Town on the Hiawassee River. Sevier’s militia managed to capture a young Indian boy and kill five men acting as a rear guard, but they found the town abandoned, fires still burning in some of the houses. Sevier ordered his men to torch the town and then gave chase to the fleeing Cherokee, whom Bob Benge had led away. The militia was met with an ambush from Benge and his warriors giving the Cherokees time to reach safety, but the young boy captured earlier was brutally murdered during the fray.
In another incident during the summer of 1791, Bob Benge led a war party of six to southwestern Virginia. On their first raid they killed two white adults and kidnapped a woman and a boy of eight. The next raid ended with four dead and a nineteen year old girl captive. They quickly returned home with their prisoners and the scalps of their victims. Such raids made Benge notorious for infiltrating and ravaging well guarded enemy territory leaving only ghosts.
Bob Benge reached legendary status among the white settlers of Virginia and Tennessee. He took on the nicknames of “Captain Benge,” “The Bench,” “Chief Benge,” and “Chief Bench.” Mothers in the region commonly warned their children, “if you don’t watch out, Captain Benge will get you.”
A well known Indian killer by the name of Moses Cockrell liked to brag about what he would do to Bob Benge given the opportunity for engagement. In the Spring of 1793 Benge and a war band set up an ambush in the Holston River area when they saw three men approaching with a pack train. Benge identified one of the men as Moses Cockrell and, knowing of Cockrell’s slanderous talk, decided to kill his companions and take on Moses one on one. So Benge dropped his firearm and leapt from cover, tomahawk in hand. Cockrell immediately turned and ran when he realized it was Benge. The pursuit continued for two miles until Cockrell came upon a settler’s cabin and took refuge. As a last ditch effort, Benge hurled his tomahawk and missed, leaving Cockrell to suffer in his own embarrassment.
Though notoriously brutal and cruel to white settlers Benge occasionally showed mercy to his victims. He and a group of warriors once encountered a party of whites traveling to Nashville. The first shot was fired by a Cherokee, and all seven white men hastily fled the ambush, abandoning the four women to meet their grim destinies. Benge captured a horse that escaped from the women and tied it to a tree. He then gently assured each of them that they would be spared, built them a fire for warmth, and left them safe.
Benge joined a raid led by his cousin John Watts near Knoxville. Benge’s Uncle Doublehead was also present and was determined destroy and rob as much as possible. The group came upon Cavett’s Station, a small outpost. Although the whites were severely outnumbered, they chose to fight anyway. Watts took pity on them and offered them a chance to surrender peacefully. Since Benge spoke fluent English, he was chosen to negotiate with the whites. He told them they would be saved and exchanged for Cherokee prisoners. Doublehead watched and grew furious feeling that no whites should be spared. As soon as the white men opened the gates, Doublehead flew into a rage, attacking and killing the settlers with his axe. Benge tried to protect them unsuccessfully. Another Cherokee warrior, James Vann, picked up a little boy to save him, but Doublehead lunged at the boy, smashing his skull. Benge left Cavett’s Staion infuriated with Doublehead for killing innocent people after leading them to believe they would be spared. He vowed never to fight with Doublehead again.
Once on a visit to the Cherokee settlement Nickajack, Bob Benge overheard negotiations for a prisoner exchange between the Cherokee and some white settlers. Three white children had been captured from a river boat, and their father was trying to arrange a trade for some Indians whom had been captured by militia leader John Sevier. The “owner” of the youngest white child lived in another town and was not willing to relinquish ownership to the white father. Upon hearing this, Benge announced, “I will bring the girl, or her owner’s head,” and galloped away on his horse. He arrived back at Nickajack the following morning with the young white girl. There is no evidence of what transpired when he retrieved the girl.
Benge conducted his final raid on April 6, 1794. After a short farewell to his wife and children, he headed out with seven warriors toward Virginia. The war party ended up at the house of Peter and Henry Livingston. The two brothers were outside working when they saw smoke rising from the area where the house was located. As they rushed toward the house they found that their mother and a black child had been tomahawked, killing the child and mortally wounding the woman. Their wives and children had been taken. The brothers rallied help from other settlers before pursuing Benge and his war band. They were afraid an ill prepared chase might jeopardize the safety of their captive family. The local militia called upon all members to aid in the rescue mission. Having dealt with Benge before, they suspected he was responsible, and they knew where he might be headed.
Confident that he wasn’t being followed, Benge slowed his pace. He and his warriors took their time breaking camp the following day, and Benge spoke easily with his prisoners. He told Elizabeth Livingston that he was taking her to an Indian town, and he asked her for information on various settlers. He said that within a year he would have stolen every Negro in the area.
As the Chickamauga war band made their way through the mountains they were ambushed by the white militia. Bob Benge was shot dead. His scalp was sent to the governor of Virginia, and the offender was rewarded with a new rifle. To the great relief of white pioneers, the most feared warrior of the Chickamauga band would fight no more. It’s difficult to imagine killing innocent people as a means of fighting. Though their tactics were objectionable, Benge and the Chickamaugas were lashing out against a force that rendered them all but powerless. Their freedoms and possessions were gradually taken away so that didn’t even notice until it was too late. A violent uprising was all they had left after broken treaties and back room deals had stolen their livelihood.
Benge’s death marked the end of the Chickamauga resistance. Dragging Canoe had been dead since 1792 and there was no one left to lead them. The Cherokees continued to yield to white colonization until they had nothing left to give but themselves. They were finally removed west in 1838.